Agricultural exceptionalism is a term used to describe the special status awarded to employers and firms involved in agriculture. Proponents argue that the special status is necessary because (1) agricultural products contribute to broad national goals (e.g., providing safe and affordable food, preventing hunger); and (2) farming is inherently risky because of the uncertainty of weather and pests.
This exceptionalism allows employers, for example, to provide lesser protection and benefits to their workers compared to what is given to workers employed in non-agriculture industries. Agricultural exceptionalism is both a global and national phenomenon. In the U.S., its manifestations include statutory exemptions for employers from paying overtime to farmworkers, and from being subject to OSHA inspections if they have fewer than 11 employees who do not live on-site. Farm workers also do not have the right to bargain collectively about working conditions. This special status even extends to children working on U.S. farms. Youngsters under age 16 are allowed to perform a myriad of dangerous tasks if they are working as farm labor; comparable tasks in other industries are off-limits to children until they are age 18.
As I’ve written before (here, here) agricultural jobs are not just a little riskier than the average job, they are nearly 8 times more life-threatening. The fatality rate for all private sector workers is 3.5 per 100,000 workers; in agriculture, fishing and hunting, the rate is 26.8 deaths per 100,000 workers.
The American Public Health Association (APHA) adopted a new policy in 2011 entitled “Ending Agricultural Exceptionalism.” The document describes some of the public health implications of agricultural exceptionalism, including inadequate attention by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on the work environment for employees in agriculture, and lax enforcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of safety regulations for pesticide applicators and other exposed workers and their children. The new APHA policy statement makes a series of recommendations, such as:
Congress should direct funding to OSHA to allow the enforcement and inspection of all agricultural operations, including those with fewer than 11 workers, and to require such operations to participate in injury reporting.
OSHA should remove agricultural exclusions specific to existing standards. OSHA should include agricultural workers in existing, relevant regulations that protect workers in other occupations from hazards.
OSHA should convene an agricultural advisory committee as it has for construction, the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, and general industry, the National Advisory Committee on Safety and Health.
OSHA and EPA should improve cooperative efforts to reduce the occupational risks associated with pesticide used in agriculture. APHA recommends that OSHA and EPA develop a memorandum of understanding with regard to EPA’s Worker Protection Standard, particularly as to the enforcement of that standard.
It will be up to APHA members and other public health advocates to use the new policy statement to compel the agencies to act on these issues.